This is 1 World Trade Center photographed from Ground Zero, from the Empire State Building, from Five Pointz in Queens, from Ellis Island, from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx and a dozen more locations, shot over the past few days. It was an attempt to fill a gap in the skyline left after the September 11, the skyline I counted on as a kid to tell me which way was north, where my father worked as a driver in the city, what I looked at every day when I played basketball at Riverbank Park in New Jersey. As I was doing this, I was looking over my shoulder and dodging authority figures, out of habit. I am Arab and I look like it. Toting a camera around New York City landmarks made me nervous.
Eleven years earlier, we watched the gray smoke rising out of the tower from the Al-Ghazaly school bus. Before we heard the radio announce, “We believe the terrorists to be Muslims,” before CNN paired out-of-context footage of kids laughing and throwing up peace signs with “Muslims celebrating 9/11 in the streets,” before any of the students from my private religious school even knew about the planes — rocks pelted the windows of the classrooms. We were being evacuated down the Pulaski Skyway with north Jersey at a complete standstill, when the towers collapsed into a pillar of smoke. Like everyone else, we watched in horror. I was thirteen and terrified. My city was under attack. Was my father alright? The buildings I’ve seen every day, suddenly gone. I’ve never seen anything that surreal. The smell resonated for weeks. “An act of war,” the headlines would later say, but with who?
59th Street Bridge
The word “Islam” means “peace.” I rarely have time to go to the mosque anymore, but over the years, I’ve become somewhat of an ambassador. I’m a typical 23-year-old dude who never leaves his home without headphones. I played bass in an indie hardcore band at Rutgers. I studied art. I listen to hip hop. I find myself having to explain to non-Muslims that no, Islam is not inherently violent. That no, my mother and sister do not wear the scarf because we would chop their heads off otherwise. Lakum deenukum waliya deen. “You have your religion, and I have mine.” That is written in the Quran. It is one of the main principles of Islam.
Sixty-two Muslims died when the towers collapsed, but suddenly, “Muslims” did it. My sister’s headscarf or my occasional keffiyeh became akin to a foreign flag, an armband of otherness. I grew up in Jersey, but suddenly I wasn’t an American. There was a barrage of headlines: “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.” My neighborhood filled up with “Love It or Leave It” signs and even the occasional “Go back to your own country” shout. Wasn’t it my country?
The next week, like many of my classmates, I transferred out of my school. It was safer to enroll in the notoriously violent Newark Public School, where the floors were practically separated by gang. There were metal detectors at every door. We were all minorities. Everybody had their own culture. Everybody had my back.
Next year, at 3:30am on September 12th, I woke up to the FBI raiding my home with flak jackets and machine guns, searching with flashlights through our rooms and closets, looking for someone named “Mohamed Mohamed.” Even to an Arab, that’s a ridiculous sounding name.
And the next year, immediately after prayer, a frail old man ran into my neighborhood mosque wielding a large knife.
Ellis Island Ferry
The last time two times I flew, I went through security without being interrogated. I always have been before. Every time.
Last week, I was going to the Empire State building, going through the metal detectors, and it reminded me of the airport. My family shows up six hours early, always, to account for extra screenings, extra extra screenings and interrogations. They ask many questions. “Where are you going?” “Who do you know in Egypt?” “Do you love your country?”
At the top of the Empire State Building, a security guard gave me a quick nervous glance. Then, he came over to watch me set up the camera, giving me friendly tips on how to secure it. I am just a guy with a camera.
Empire State Building
Yes, I love my country. I don’t love that the NYPD conducted illegal secret spying programs within my community. I don’t love the “Ground Zero Mosque” protests. When I was shooting a documentary in Egypt after the revolution, during the elections, in the streets, I would say “I am Egyptian.” When I was interviewing my family in Egypt, I would say “I am American.” Because that’s what I am. I have my two cultures but every time I go abroad, it’s the States I get homesick for.
The birth place of hip hop, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the Bronx
See the slideshow above for more photos. All photos and time-lapse video by Aymann Ismail.